Hidden Histories

The new year has already been very busy and is full of possibilities. This month, I’m saying “yes” to gifts and opportunities that come my way, which seems to be very fruitful so far.

On Saturday, I decided to join a guided walk with a poet that would end with a writing workshop in a lovely real ale pub. But the walk wasn’t in the hills of the peak district. It was one of the “Unregistered Sheffield” walks, a project run by Art in the Park, an environmental arts organisation based here in Sheffield. I was curious about the format of the walk and the techniques that the walk leader, poet Bill Cooper would use on the walk and in the workshop (because I’m interested in leading walks combined with creative writing workshops too!) And also, for months, I’ve been intrigued by Wardsend Cemetery, a Victorian cemetery, abandoned for years, on the banks of the River Don behind Hillsborough. However, I’d been told that it was a bit spooky, so I didn’t dare visit it on my own! I’m a wuss!

Despite a downpour earlier on Saturday morning, it was bright and clear as I set off for the meeting point in Hillsborough. But the streets were already busy with Sheffield Wednesday supporters and alarming numbers of police, before a Wednesday vs Leeds local Derby match. However, by the tram stop next to the Rawson Spring pub at Hillsborough corner, it was easy to spot the walkers – people of all ages, dressed in cagoules and fleeces which weren’t in blue and white stripes! I was pleased to meet Zoe, a lady who had attended the writing workshop I ran in October. We set off towards Hillsborough College and Penistone Road, already feeling “different” than I do on my shopping trips and errands that I usually run around here. As we crossed the dual carriageway – where I’ve driven thousands of times, we stopped under the huge sign for Owlerton Stadium. Bill said that we had crossed an “invisible line”, away from the world of cars and business, and the walk started to take on its own pace. We talked about the church of St John the Baptist, and the Swann Morton factory over the road, which makes most of the surgical blades in the world!

A sculptural stack of tyres

A sculptural stack of tyres at Owlerton Stadium

We walked past Hillsborough College, Napoleon’s Casino and around the back of Owlerton Stadium, where we found this rather sculptural stack of old tyres filling a whole in the fence! For years, I had wondered what the roaring engine noise was that could be heard from Crookes and Walkley on still nights. The stadium has hosted speedway racing since it opened in 1929 and all kinds of motor sports, including stock cars and monster trucks (which might be where those tyres came from!) The stadium is also famous for greyhound racing, which can be a cruel sport for dogs who don’t make the grade. But Owlerton stadium does support the Retired Greyhound Trust. We rounded the corner, and crossed the river at the back of the Cadbury Trebor Bassett factory, which smelled delicious, like toasted chocolate. Bassett’s Allsorts are made here! It was lovely to chat to the other walkers: artists, writers and people curious about hidden Sheffield.


The river Don, behind the sweet factory!

As we crossed the river, memories came back to me, of driving slowly the long way round to Coopers Car Spares in 2008, after our beloved Fiat Cinquecento had spewed the insides of its exhaust onto Penistone Road and wasn’t firing on four cylinders any more. My last sight of it before I scrapped it was of a very large man being laughed at by his colleagues as he tried to drive the sluggish car up the hill in the scrapyard. I hadn’t even noticed the cemetery then, ironically, as I was taking my car to meet its end! And the cemetery is right next to Cooper’s scrap yard, the mechanical and human remains lying in close proximity.

Wardsend Cemetery

Wardsend Cemetery

We gathered around an impressive Victorian memorial, and Bill explained the background to the cemetery. When someone said: “where did people buried here come from?” Bill mentioned that many of the graves were from soldiers stationed at Hillsborough Barracks (now Morrisons’ Supermarket!), but I spotted that the memorial in front of me was dedicated to John Register, of Fir View, Walkley, which caught my eye. He must have been someone important in the community, with his prominent marble grave, and several other relatives had been buried in the same plot. We were given twenty minutes to wander around the cemetery but I noted the engraving on John Register’s gravestone for a six year old child: “the mother gave in tears and pain. The only flower she had to love. Assured she’ll find it once again. In heavenly fields of light above”. I stood and noted the call of great tits, the shafts of sunlight, the delicious, waffly smell from the Cadbury’s factory, the hum of the nearby electricity pylons, a call of a jackdaw and a distant roar of traffic.

Eerie gravestones amongst the bracken

Eerie gravestones amongst the bracken

I hadn’t left much time to explore the rest of the cemetery, so I took pictures of old gravestones and the wildlife that had taken over. I made my way quickly over the railway bridge to see the graves on the other side – Wardsend was the only major cemetery in the country bisected by a railway line. The gravestones on the other side were an eerie sight – half hidden by crispy brown bracken as the land on the other side turns into heath. There had evidently been a fire – perhaps in the dry summer, which had blackened some of the trees into skeletons, but the gravestones had survived, stubbornly. When we gathered again as a group, Bill showed us the Obelisk, which commemorated soldiers from Hillsborough Barracks, who had died in the 1860s. We also found a broken column lying on its side – the gravestone of a young girl. The broken column represented a life cut off before its prime. Wardsend cemetery used to have its own chapel, until it was demolished, and the graveyard was abandoned.

Keep Out!

Keep Out!

We walked along Club Mill Road – it had been a “proper” road when I had driven my car to the scrapyard in 2008 – because the bridge we’d walked along had been swept away by the floods in the summer of 2007. But now the road has been blocked to traffic and it is starting to resemble a riverside path, abounding with wildlife. The river flowed swiftly and we saw how the Parkwood landfill tip is being landscaped, with trees planted. We walked past demolished factories and a lady who was one of the walkers said that there used to be cooling towers here, by the side of the river. There was a large, grassy mound there now, and a half demolished, grafitti-covered wall on the other side of the road, it’s “keep out” notices redundant now there was just a grassy hill on the other side, rather than a factory. We mused on how Sheffield evolves and re-creates itself, in the space of relatively few years. Nature is reclaiming this part of Sheffield.

The old mill and the tree

The old mill and the tree

After a while, we reached the point on the road where traffic is allowed, and there are various industrial units. We felt like we were returning to “normality”. But then we heard a cockerel crowing. In yard of a ramshackle taxi garage was a man feeding a small flock of fancy chickens and fan-tailed doves with bird seed. It was an unexpected and endearing sight. We could still hear the cockerel when Gary showed us the old mill, complete with a rusting metal water wheel. The ruined mill, behind a row of Heras fencing, had a really spooky atmosphere – and all of my photos of the mill have come out blurred! There was an incredibly large, twisted willow tree nearby. Near the mill, an angler sat serenely on the river bank.

The old gates of Hillfoot County School

The old gates of Hillfoot County School

One of the walkers was a lady who had grown up on the Parkwood Spring estate, which was demolished many years ago. She showed us the coke depot where people used to queue to scramble on the slag heap for nuggets of coke during World War II and afterwards, when fuel was still rationed. She showed us the gates of her old school, blocked by a young ash tree and buddleia and the scruffy wall of a corrugated factory, where there was once a Victorian School building. Barbara vividly remembered fights outside the school gates and running up the hill when she found out that George VI had died. There was more rubbish and detritus between here and the derelict Farfield Inn – a culvert full of tyres and rubbish bags, an unpleasant cave  full of broken things where a few walls of a demolished factory stood – evidently a hiding place for someone up to no good. The atmosphere became edgy and oppressive as the road became a narrow alleyway.

It was a relief to be on the industrial streets again, and we passed close by Neepsend Gasometer and its huge gas pipe, which I can see from Walkley, but I didn’t know what it was before. It used to be obscured by a huge art-deco factory which was demolished a few years ago, taking part of the building next door with it. As we reached the Gardener’s Rest, a real ale oasis in the post-industrial desert, we stopped to look at the old brewery building and the ingenious graffiti mural. Sheffield ia a virtual gallery of street art, with work around many obscure corners by artists who have become well-respected in the art world. Check some of them out here: http://sheffieldstreetart.tumblr.com/.

Graffiti mural in Neepsend

Graffiti mural in Neepsend

Once inside the warm, sunny conservatory of the pub, we ate lunch, enjoyed a drink (I had a pint of shandy), and chatted. Bill talked us through a series of writing exercises, asking us to list the things we had found charming, or sad or shocking on our walk. We listed verbs: “glitter, sparkle, splash, squelch, crunch, reflect, fester, cockadoodledoo”, and imagined conversations taking place in the cemetery, at the gates of the old school and at the garage where the man was feeding the chickens. We had time to draft a piece of writing inspired by one of the exercises. I’ve been writing more poetry recently, but I found myself writing a story about some sixth-formers from the college holding a seance in the cemetery, which I’ll try to finish soon! If it works, I might have a great Young Adult novel on my hands – in my head, it’s threatening to develop into something much longer.

The walk was a great adventure. It felt like we were exploring a hidden world, yet only a short walking distance from home. I met an interesting mixture of like-minded people – and I’ll definitely be going along to the Unregistered Sheffield celebration event this Sunday afternoon in the pavillion in Hillsborough Park. There’s always something interesting, stimulating and creative to do in Sheffield – and even in the midst of industrial decay, there is beauty and wonder – and amazing stories.

What a difference a year makes…

Winter Trees and Sunshine in the Peak District

Winter Trees and Sunshine in the Peak District

This time last year, we were driving back from a great New Year’s party in Bolton. It was a brilliant party and a chance to reconnect with friends I’d known since I was a teenager. But it hadn’t been a very happy festive period for me. I was worried that I might be made redundant as soon as I set foot in the office on the 2nd January. Things turned our very differently, but I remember writing my new year’s resolutions for 2013 in the back of my diary, with tears in my eyes.

I was determined that despite the negative situation at work, that this would be the year that things would finally change:

New Year’s Resolutions 2013

Think and act positive.

Spread the love and it will come back to me.

Count your blessings (and write them down)

Relax more and enjoy life.

Have confidence in my abilities and pride in what I’ve acheived.

Things to do:

  • Job search. In 2013, I will find a new job / career and it will be a really positive change.
  • Read the ‘What Color is my Parachute’ book and do the exercises.
  • Start a blog for my writing / editing / creative work.
  • Keep being creative!
  • Do more marketing of Outside Inside.
  • Finish Distortion and get it out there.

I think I was already on the right path. Even before the announcements of the changes at work, I’d been exploring other career options. But I was still focussed on finding “a job” out there, in an advert, or that one flash of lightning that told me the one thing I was meant to be. A few things changed that. I had an interview for a great community sector job, helping people into learning and education. I worked hard on the presentation, and thought the interview went well, but there was strong competition. I felt let down when I didn’t get the job, and the organisation didn’t even bother to call me to give me feedback. For a while, I irrationally thought that was my fault – that I wasn’t even worth contacting, even to reject.

I worked my way through the somewhat complex exercises in What Color is my Parachute and I knew that the path I took would have to be creative. I also found out that looking for job adverts and filling in application forms is the least effective form of job search (about a 4-10% success rate). The penny dropped. There had to be another way! Then, some half-hearted research for my novel helped me to find Free Range Humans, run by Marianne Cantwell. A search about personal stylists, inspired by an idea to put the characters from my first novel Outside Inside into my second novel. I found this amazing story, and signed up, half-believing that it was some kind of scam. I bought Marianne’s book Be a Free Range Human. I read the book, mostly with tears in my eyes because its home truths were so familiar to me. I worked through the exercises, and I had the blue-print for my brand new business and an idea of what I wanted to do. After my very tearful but useful coaching session with Beverley Ward, that I mentioned in my previous post (where I described the block of lard that my job had become), and I was ready to opt for redundancy.

If you read back enough posts, you’ll know the rest. A scary, but exciting year. Tomorrow, my working life picks up pace again, with a meeting with an editing client. I’ve got a meeting with a brand-new client on Friday, which is really exciting, another client meeting on Saturday, and next week, my Derbyshire County Council teaching work will start again at Newholme Hospital, and I’ve also got my Micro-teach session for my teaching course, and a visit to Bolsover to explore ideas for running more courses! I’m teaching a creative writing group in Barnsley as a guest tutor – in fact, the week is looking rather jam-packed. It looks like 2014 is hitting the ground running.

Here are my resolutions / affirmations for this year. There are some things that I didn’t manage last year. I stumbled a little with my second novel, probably for all the right reasons, but this year:

I’m going to work my way through Distortion, scene by scene, page by page, until I finish my first draft. And then it will go through a careful editing process and will be published, one way or another.

I am going to publish Outside Inside as a Print on Demand paperback as soon as possible. Lots of people have said they’d read it and then gone into a massive tirade against e-books! And learning this process will also help me to publish books for other people in the future.

To develop my writing and editing business and my teaching experience. To use my skills to earn myself a living and make others happy. So far, I’ve been managing to pay the bills, but now I need to strive to create the life that I want to live, using my skills and talents.

To spend more time with friends and family.

To spend time outside – lots of walks, and I’ll be keeping myself busy as usual over the festival season, courtesy of Oxfam Stewarding and Angel Gardens. I can’t wait for the leaves to come out again….

To put time and energy into increasing my creativity:

  • To learn a musical instrument!
  • To paint some pictures – or create some collages.
  • To start keeping “morning pages” to free up my writing. I’ve just started reading Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg. I’ve been meaning to read this for ages!
  • I also need to read through The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, which I bought with last year’s birthday money but haven’t properly explored yet.

Even when the weather’s terrible, like it was today, there’s always a silver lining – a chance to curl up with a good book, do something creative and learn a new skill. I’ve not done badly today – I’ve done some freelance work, finished Dream Seed Magic by Diane Leigh, a fellow “free-ranger”, learned some chords on my new ukulele and written this blog post! And hopefully there’s time for some more before bed time!

Soaring above Stanage

I’ve not finished with 2013 yet. It’s been a year of massive change – of getting rid of the job that had come to dominate my life – like “a big block of lard on my plate”, as I described it during a coaching session with the amazing Beverley Ward who works for Writing Yorkshire and helps writers to be productive and creative. I said that I wanted my life to look like a plate from a brilliant buffet, or plate of tapas, with lots of interesting dishes to sample rather than one thing dominating in my life!

My life has definitely been full since leaving my job at the end of April. There have been moments of celebration, and moments of fear and panic – but I’ve learned so much about where my life and my writing is going, and the things that are really important to me. It was important to reach this Christmas alive and creative, to celebrate it on my own terms.

This time last year, my life was a mess. I enjoyed Christmas with my partner and family, and New Year’s Eve with friends in Bolton. But I was knotted up inside with anxiety, utterly miserable in my job, and desperate to escape, but not sure what I wanted to escape to. I tried applying for admin jobs – without getting anywhere. I didn’t even know if I’d have a job once I returned to the office in January.

This year, life is very different. I needed to take a break for Christmas, but it was my decision when to stop, and how. Perhaps my life is now more like the Christmas dinner I made for my family: creative, adapted to suit me, making use of everyday ingredients: breadcrumbs, carrots, parsnips, leeks, butter beans and chestnuts. I used my creative mind to turn each dish into something special, with garlic, herbs and spices. And I felt proud to serve the meal in my transformed dining room. It’s been so much work recently, spending all my spare time covered in paint, painstakingly painting the skirting board or stretching to touch up the ceiling and hiding grotty corners with filler. I defy any slugs to crawl through the skirting board now! Ha! Once the decorations come down, I won’t have a sad, shabby room, I’ll have an inspiring, creative space. And my family and friends have chipped in to help, with Christmas presents of armchairs and money towards furnishing. The carpet is still grubby, but that’s another project!

We’ve been lucky with the weather so far too. The south of England has suffered with stormy winds, floods and power cuts over the Christmas period, and as I’m writing, the day is gloomy, windy and wet. But there has been plenty of gorgeous winter weather too. I’ve been walking with friends, my partner or family almost every day of the festive period so far: to Allestree Woods with my dad; onto the Bolehills with Katy and her dog Dave to gather holly and ivy for Christmas, and a quick wander around Walkley with my parents, my partner and his brother on Christmas day, after dinner!

On Boxing Day, I went on a more dramatic walk with my friend Louise. We made sandwiches from Christmas dinner leftovers – mushroom and chestnut bake and home-made stuffing – essentially a bread sandwich – but it tastes quite chicken-like! We headed out to Redmires again, under blue winter skies. We walked around the top reservoir and up the path that leads to Stanage. We’d never walked this route before, but it seemed very popular, with families and groups of friends all with the same idea. After quite a short walk, we reached Stanedge pole, a pole amongst a group of rocks. We didn’t know anything about it, but I’ve since learned (thanks to Wikipedia), that it’s a marker on an old packhorse route. it must have been a welcome sight in past centuries, a sign of civilisation on the desolate moors and the treacherous gritstone edge of Stanage. The spelling difference is deliberate! The pole seemed to be a gathering point for groups of walkers and we joined them for a quick bite of Christmas cake.

We marvelled at the view – Stanage Edge sharply marked out against a bank of white cloud, with the silhouettes of paragliders swooping over the cliffs. As we walked closer to the edge, the scenery was stunning, although after eating our sandwiches and admiring the view, our hands froze numb and the fog rolled in, hiding the village of Hathersage from view, and we remembered how inhospitable the Peak District landscape can be when the sun isn’t shining. I’ve been on some wet, desolate walks on Stanage, as well as glorious, soul-soaring ones!

I always feel proud that I’ve got such beautiful countryside on my doorstep. I started this year being forced to commute to an uninspiring industrial part of Derby – but over the course of this year, I’ve been drawn into Derbyshire and the Peak District; to the beauty of my local community in Sheffield. My work in Derbyshire at the Newholme hospital is set to continue, and expand into other areas. Perhaps areas where people are surrounded by beauty and possibility, but need help to set their imaginations, and themselves free.

Creating and Cleaning

I’ve had my head down for most of November. I’ve been learning more about the world of starting my own business and delving into the scary world of tax and accounting. Hopefully once I’ve got to grips with it all, the number-crunching won’t be as hard as I feared. I’m working on my business plan (which sounds a bit after the fact, as I started my business in May), and working out what direction I want things to go in. I’ve got some exciting ideas.

But I haven’t had much time to plan and plot my ideas yet. I’ve been working flat-out on one of my freelance editing projects – a Victorian murder mystery novel. I met my deadline and my customer is very happy with my work, which is great news. There are more editing clients who want to work with me which is really exciting. I’ve also been busy working with dementia patients at Newholme Hospital in Bakewell doing reminiscence and creative writing, which is an area where I want to build up a real expertise.

When I left my job, one of the projects I wanted to complete was re-decorating the dining room. Since we moved in two years ago, the dining room (which is like the tardis and seems bigger than the outside dimensions of the house) has become my favourite room, but it was scruffy, with a flaky damp patch under the window and stains in the corner of the ceiling, where there had been a leak from the bathroom. We paid for re-plastering and re-sealed the bath, in case of further leaks! And now I’ve been painting the walls a beautiful fresh white, enjoying listening to BBC 6 Music. It’s a slow job, but it all needs to be finished by Christmas.

I’ve also started a massive sort-out, removing all the clutter from the dining room and the study, sorting out my paperwork and starting to become a more organised person, with a proper filing system! We’ve had several trips to the tip with old cardboard boxes, a sofa bed that was so tatty and saggy it was no use as a sofa or a bed, and some old broken dining chairs cluttering up the place. Having a clutter-free, clean, tidy house is important to me at the moment, as I feel like it will enable me to work and build my business more effectively. I’ve felt under pressure and stressed-out recently and it’s time to take control of things; learning how to do things my way. That’s what being a freerange  person is all about.

The learning process has been so steep recently, time and money poor: juggling my teaching course, voluntary work, and paid work – with little time for a social life or my own creative work, but that’s what it is: a time of learning – and the outside world is starting to take notice. I’ve come a long way since I started this blog in February, dreaming of a better life in a lonely hotel room on a work trip. Since the end of the summer, I’ve worked hard – maybe a bit too hard for my own well-being. Afterall, it’s nearly midnight and I’m still tapping away at my laptop!

One of the reasons I was so stressed was feeling the year hurtling to an end. How was I going to squeeze in Christmas, amongst all the other things I’m doing – and earn enough money to survive. But I’ve made a start, buying daft little presents for my friends and family, and today, I made a Christmas cake.

I took it out of the oven a few hours ago, and it looks pretty good so far – not as dark brown as usual, as I used lighter sugar. For twenty years at least, I’ve been decorating Christmas cakes and to break the tradition this year would seem wrong. I feel better now I’ve made it – now I just have to decide on a design! I’ve got some ideas already. Christmas can be a good excuse to be creative. Before you ask, I haven’t made my own cards this year – I bought them from Age UK.

I use a tried and tested recipe from the classic Delia Smith’s Complete Cookery Course, a book that teaches you to cook virtually anything, although it was published in the early eighties. Although it’s thirty years later, and I’m vegan, it’s still surprisingly useful. There’s even a vegetarian section. In the introduction, the young Delia speaks out against factory farming, but thinks that “plant milk” is weird and trots out the old myth about Hitler being a vegetarian. By the way, researching this claim, I’ve just come across a website that claims that vegetarians and vegans are evil. I’m not sure if it’s a mickey-take or not. I suspect not! It claims that vegetarianism equals child abuse. I’m not going to link to this website because it’s so weird, but google “vegetarians are evil” and see if you can find it. Here’s the Vegetarian Society‘s website instead!

Anyway, back to the recipe. This is what I did: http://www.deliaonline.com/how-to-cook/baking/how-to-make-a-christmas-cake.html (Delia’s cake recipe hasn’t changed at all over the years!), except I didn’t use any currants, and I used more cherries and mixed peel. I also cheated and didn’t soak the dried fruit overnight. I soaked the fruit in some bourbon whisky I had left over, and some Portuguese almond liqueur called Amarguinha, as well as freshly squeezed orange and lemon juice. Then I put the bowl of dried fruit in the microwave on the lowest setting for twenty minutes. To “veganise” the cake, I used a dairy-free margarine and to replace the eggs, I used Orgran No Egg, which is a powdered egg replacer, made from potato starch and tapioca flour. It’s great for cakes. Because I used the fruit juice too, my mixture was a little more moist than it looks in Delia’s photos, but the cake looks great anyway!

Eating Christmas cake can sometimes be a bit daunting as it’s so rich, but I think this one’s going to be good. Hopefully the whole cake will taste of marzipan!


Sometimes the real world doesn’t look like the map…

That’s what I found myself thinking on Sunday as we found the stile several hundred metres from where the path seemed to start on the Ordnance Survey map, and then found ourselves sinking in a bog. It was the first time I’d convinced the other half to go on a walk with me in a long time and it wasn’t quite what I’d envisaged.

I’d been able to tempt him out by reports that Redmire Reservoirs were haunted. Visitors to the Sheffield Forum reported a “strange sense of unease” when walking there. Some people have reportedly seen the ghosts of the World War One soldiers, the Sheffield City battalion, who had their camp and trained in trench building near the dams. 248 of these men died in the battle of Serre in 1916. There are also reports of a “ghost plane” in the area, perhaps a world War Two bomber, or the American Airforce plane, which crashed into the nearby Lodge Moor hospital in 1955.

The reservoirs themselves date from 1836; a chain of three. They were built to provide Sheffield with clean water following a cholera epidemic in 1832. Sheffield is surrounded by reservoirs, fed by clear moorland streams and dammed rivers.

It was a crystal blue day, the first of the winter frosts, but with the woods still rich in autumn colour. We could have been miles away from anywhere, on the top of the moors, but we were only a few miles away from home, still within the Sheffield city boundary.

We set off early on Sunday morning and drove to Lodge Moor, along Redmires Road, until it narrowed and the road was bordered by fields, woods and the odd isolated cottage. We parked in a car park at Wyming Brook, where an inviting, well-maintained bridleway, formerly a road, wound through a wooded valley full of birdsong towards another set of reservoirs, the Rivelin Dams. But we had come here to walk around the reservoirs. I’d looked at a map on the internet and it looked like there was a nice clear path, running all the way around the three reservoirs.

An almost empty reservoir

An almost empty reservoir

The map indicated that there would be a path through the wood, and after walking past an isolated farm, we found a footpath. It was boggy in places and there was an eerie atmosphere as the sun filtered through the pine trees and we passed an overspill that looked like an abandoned bob-sleigh run. We ended up at a water treatment plant with twentieth century houses which would have belonged to the water board. Redmires is almost the highest point in Sheffield and it was so cold and crisp that I couldn’t feel my feet any more, despite hiking boots and two pairs of socks. The tarmac drive was slippery, the grass was white and there was a large icy puddle. Winter was coming fast.

The overflow in the woods

The overflow in the woods

We took a wrong turning on the path to the reservoir, and ended up at a derelict post war water treatment centre. This place certainly had a strange atmosphere, with its doors and windows shuttered with metal, peeling paint and a defunct sign next to a rusty doorbell: “press here for attention” on a side door that hadn’t opened in years, complete with a decrepit doormat. We turned back and found the path.

There was a jogger and a couple of dog walkers on the path around the top of the dam. But a sign said that walkers were not allowed up there. I decided to ignore them. After all, if questioned by some water board official, I still have a valid water hygiene card from my old job in the utilities industry (which allows me to go behind the scenes in water treatment works, or enter excavations – not as exciting as it sounds!) We scrambled up the bank, and were disappointed that the reservoir was mostly empty. There were excavators, temporary Heras fencing and the rattle of generators, but the view from the dam was breathtaking.

Approached the second dam, we clambered up the steep grassy bank. There was even less water in this reservoir! We walked around the gravel path, feeling a little illegal, until we arrived at another temporary fence, blocking the reservoir from the road, with a large digger parked in front of it. The fence wasn’t very well secured, and there was a way to squeeze out onto the road. Despite the reservoir being a construction site, it felt sinister, and there was a dead hare lying in front of the fence. It had obviously been dead for some time. The site compound was opposite here. No one stirred, but one of the welfare unit (toilet/shower) doors was swinging open, and it felt uncomfortably like someone was watching us.

The abandoned hut

The abandoned hut

We walked on, sticking to the road, which curved around the top reservoir. There were more people around now, parking up to enjoy a walk. Further on, a river flowed into the reservoir, with a path leading off it towards Rivelin. There was a large bell-mouth spillway, like a giant plughole. Next to the path was a ruined brick building, looking like a witch’s hut from a fairy tale. We enjoyed exploring it, and posing, looking out of the windows that had long ago lost their glass.

The rest of the walk along the road was enjoyable, admiring the smooth expanse of blue water and sky, the reservoir only ruffled by swimming mallards and seagulls bobbing in the water. Families and groups of walkers were parking up – but we’d hardly seen any people so far around the other reservoirs. The road ran out, with thick, mysterious woods on one side and a sign for ‘Redmires Lodge’. There’s a house in the woods and a very isolated shooting lodge, which would be a spooky place to spend the night.

All the walkers were making their way up a path which leads towards Stanage Edge, another favourite landmark for Sheffield walkers. The path didn’t go in the direction we wanted to go, and it was crowded with people strolling and chatting in large groups. We decided to take a path which would lead us higher up around the other side of the reservoir, near some interesting looking stones on the map. Unfortunately, this is where we got stuck in the bog – perfectly ordinary looking grass tussocks that squelched and oozed when we stood on them. We retraced our steps and found a muddy but stable path around the other side of the reservoir. We scrambled up onto the dam of the top reservoir and climbed over a wall before rejoining the road and making our way back to the car.

Clear blue skies and water

Clear blue skies and water

It was an interesting walk, and we managed to find a way to walk around the reservoirs. We enjoyed ourselves and exercised in the fresh air. In the clear, sunny conditions, we didn’t find it spooky, but it was certainly atmospheric, although I’m sure I would find it terrifying if I was alone here at dusk. However, we will definitely be back to explore Redmires – investigating Wyming Brook, the path with the spooky ruined cottage, and the track leading to Stannage. I can’t believe I haven’t been here in eighteen years of living in Sheffield, but we will have many more years of enjoying this place. There were difficulties at times, but we had fun in the sunshine.

This blog post is about a walk, and it isn’t an extended metaphor, but my life does feel like this walk at times. If I keep going, I will reach my destination of having a stable career as a creative writing tutor, with a thriving editing business and my own novels published and read by thousands of people. There are bound to be diversions, adventures, blocks and boggy bits along the way, but they are part of the journey, and I am already on my way there.

MAMAWE! A celebration of African Music and Dance.

Dancers Angelina and Sarah at MAMAWE! Tired but happy.

Dancers Angelina and Sarah at MAMAWE! Tired but happy.

It means “Oh my god, this is all getting too exciting!” Or “Oh my god, this is all a bit too much for me!” I’ve felt like that in both senses recently. But I’m starting to feel a sense of excitement again. Knowing that I’m part of a vibrant community of creative people in Sheffield and beyond really helps, and on Saturday, my friend and amazingly talented dancer, Angelina Abel hosted a celebration of African music, dance and food.

Angelina has been teaching dance for over five years now. She had always been a great dancer, and would always try to make me learn moves when we were out together. She dragged me to salsa classes, which I wasn’t too sure about, and to bellydance, which I came to love as much as she did. In her Angolan Portuguese family, everyone can dance, and from the start of our friendship, Angelina managed to convince me that I didn’t have two left feet. She’s turned her passion into dedication, getting on National Express coaches at stupid times in the morning to spend her weekends in dance training. And she’s also built her own dance school, Mulembas D’Africa. We’ve performed in Sheffield City centre, Bakewell, and in a gazebo in a muddy torchlit park at Sharrow Lantern Festival. 

Learning to dance has improved my fitness, helped me to make new friends, given me confidence and relieved a lot of stress.

On Saturday, we helped Angelina and to arrange chairs and hang beautiful printed African fabric on the walls of the Sharrow Old Junior School, an old school hall which is now part of a community centre. The speakers and turntables were in place and people taking part in the drumming workshop gathered together. I selected a beautiful djembe drum and managed to balance it between my knees. As a vegan, it’s a bit weird to be banging away on a goat skin drum head, but the drums look and feel beautiful. In case you were wondering, this is how a djembe is made: http://www.african-drumming.co.uk/djembe-making.html.

Drum tutor Souleymane Compo led us in a two-hour long drum lesson. I was completely absorbed and I loved it. There were beginners and more advanced drummers in the workshop, and the class covered quite complicated rhythms to remember. I was really pleased that I managed to keep up. For the first half of the class, I concentrated intently, and then I slipped into a sort of trance, just focussing on the rhythm that we were playing. When we’d finished, I was surprised that my back was aching from bending over the drum.

More people were now gathering, for Abram Diallo’s dance class. Here he is, teaching a class in Bristol, and you can see what an amazing mover he is! Abram is from Guinea Conakry in West Africa and he’s been dancing from a very young age. Tall and wiry, he seems to have boundless energy and effortless grace, which is probably why he became a choreographer by the age of eighteen. He made us work very hard, as he says that there’s no energy and life in half-hearted movements, but he was also very entertaining. The routine he taught us, with live drummers, was based on a rhythm I’d danced to in one of Angelina’s classes, so I was familiar with the slow rhythm changing to the fast and furious. And I managed to keep up, without getting my arms and legs in a complete tangle!

Abram also told us about the meaning of the two rhythms: Yankadi is slow and laid back; a women’s dance; and Abram seemed to really enjoy dancing “like a beautiful young girl”, to show us how it was done. Macru is the fast part, where the young men join in with the dance. At the end of the session, Abram gathered us into a semi-circle around the drummers and made sure that we all took turns and did a solo dance, which was exhilarating, in such a large group with so many talented dancers.

After a cool down, I was ready for a meal from Miss Adu’s Kitchen, run by Chaz, another friend who has taken the plunge and gone freerange (literally), as she’s started an African-inspired catering company with the aim to “Entertain, Educate and Empower through everyone’s need for food and laughter”. She cooks great vegetarian food as well as some meaty delights, and I felt like I’d definitely earned my dinner!

The entertainment wasn’t over, as Angelina, dancer Bekki French and the talented Kweku, joined forces for a comedy dance routine, introduced by Angelina’s young nephew and friend. Her nephew proved that dance really does run in the family with his impromptu routine to ‘Hey Now’ by Outkast. The irrepressible Sarah Khouchane from Maskara Dance in London rounded off the dance performances with a showcase of traditional Algerian dance and electro swing, her acrobatics wowing the audience.

The performances were rounded off by some rousing Punjabi Dhol drumming from the wonderful (but shy – honest!) Tanya Stanley. Papa Al and the Globologist took over by spinning some beats from around the world. The dancefloor filled up with people trying out new moves.

It was an exhausting but exciting day, and I’m really looking forward to the next one! Angelina has worked really hard and created a network of performers and creative people from all over the world. She’s has brought people together to build a really special community here in Sheffield and I’m really proud of her.

There will be more photos linked to this post soon! I couldn’t take any of the drumming and dancing, as I was too busy actually taking part!

Wet, wonderful and downright weird!

My writing workshop at Off the Shelf!

My writing workshop at Off the Shelf!

On Saturday, I ran a writing workshop as part of Sheffield’s Off the Shelf Festival of Words – a literary festival which has now been running for 22 years. I had been worried about attracting enough people to my course, as it was on the launch day of the festival, and I was competing with lots of other events, including a writers’ group fair and humorous poet and ‘Just a Minute’ panellist Pam Ayres.

My workshop was listed in the Off the Shelf programme and I’d advertised it on Facebook, but I needed to reach the right people. So at the end of September, I decided to put in some serious graft. I didn’t think there was much point spending a lot of money on printing flyers and posters, so I ran black and white ones off myself and put them up in cafes and venues where literary-minded people might congregate. I wrote a press release and sent it to every media organisation I could think of in South Yorkshire.

My master stroke was to email every writing group I could find locally! Luckily, my local writers’ development organisation, Signposts (now Writing Yorkshire – more on that later!) has a list of writing groups to suit everyone. Within a few hours of sending my press releases to them, the bookings were rolling in. I’d made the workshop day really affordable at £10 including lunch – it helped that Sheffield City Council had contributed towards the cost of running the course too!

I’d already planned the writing exercises we’d be doing in the workshop. I called it “Open Your Memory Box”. It was designed to follow on from memoir-writing workshops I ran in May this year. Saturday’s workshop was designed to take biographical details and turn them into poetry, stories and drama. All I needed to do now was check the venue at Bank Street Arts – an arts centre and cafe dedicated to the craft of writing, and finalise the details for lunch. Everything was fine, although I was a little nervous.

Saturday dawned grey and rainy. The perfect weather for a day spent indoors, writing. Unfortunately, the participants had to travel through the rain, but everyone arrived safely, and after grabbing a coffee, we settled down for a creative day.

I had such lovely, interesting participants that the day was a dream. I’d asked everyone to bring along an object that held a memory, and I was soon sucked into fascinating stories of hair slides, old photographs, charm bracelets, money boxes, a twig naturally shaped like a wood spirit, a treasured sweet packet, a gold sovereign and gold watches lost under the ocean.

As the day progressed, we tried various writing exercises, and I was so impressed by the standard of the poems and stories that I’m going to be putting some of them on my Wild Rosemary Writing Services website.

We even had time to watch a miniature theatre performance also taking place at Bank Street Arts on Saturday, The Ice Book, a wonderful story created from projections and paper shapes on the pages of a magical book. The fairy tale theme tied in perfectly with the exercises we were doing on folk tales and archetypes.

Straight after my workshop in the cafe was the launch of Writing Yorkshire, the new name for writers’ development agency Signposts. The team are now dedicated to helping writers throughout Yorkshire. They’ve certainly helped me so far, giving me advice on setting up my courses and my editing business. Some of my workshop participants came to mingle with me. Amongst the long queue of people waiting for free coffee and cake were lots of people I know: writers from the novelists group I run, people from the Writing MA at Sheffield Hallam University, and my managers from my very first post university job, working for the theatre company which has now evolved into Point Blank Theatre who run the Riverside pub venue in Sheffield. It felt really good to talk to my old boss about my new projects.

After cake, there was a really interesting panel debate with local writers, on the theme of making a living as a writer (a subject very dear to my heart!) The panellists were Joe Kriss, who runs Wordlife performance events in Sheffield and Beverley Ward, Writing Development Manager at Writing Yorkshire, and a fellow novelist, who has given me a lot of support and guidance so far in my freelance career. There was also Daniel Blythe, a Young Adult novelist and writer of Dr Who novels, and Stephen May, the writing development officer from the Arts Council. I was really pleased that they were advocating a “portfolio” career – building up a creative career with lots of different aspects – in my case teaching, editing and at the moment, building up as much experience as possible. It certainly makes life more interesting than sitting alone all the time, trying to create a masterpiece! It would drive me mad, even though it’s worked for some people. I am spending more time on my own writing though – getting up in the dark to snatch a bit of time every morning to write my second novel.

Colm Gray at the Crookes Folk Club - sorry about the red eyes!

Colm Gray at the Crookes Folk Club – sorry about the red eyes!

Feeling tired but elated, it was on with my marathon day. I caught a bus to my old stamping ground Crookes for a gig at the Crookes Folk Club at the Princess Royal pub. The main artist was Colm Gray, a young folk singer and guitarist I’d seen at Bearded Theory in May this year. He’d managed to blag his way into busking backstage, and impressed the organisers – and the singer from the Levellers so much that he’s booked to play the main stage at Bearded Theory, and also to play the Levellers’ own festival Beautiful Days next year.

The Princess Royal is an unassuming back street pub. It’s weekly folk club has been running for several years now, with talented artists performing in the intimate upstairs room. The place was packed for Colm Gray, who was fresh from supporting Levellers singer Mark Chadwick in Derby the night before. Colm is a striking-looking young man with razor-sharp cheekbones, with an almost ethereal presence and singing voice. He played a mixture of traditional tunes and his own songs, such as Collie Dog Blues to a spell-bound audience, Originally from Kilkenny, Colm is now touring the UK, breaking into the conscience of the nation the traditional way, travelling up and down the country in a Transit van, playing folk festivals and charming his way onto festival bills. He’s well worth catching on his wanders – hopefully he’ll play Sheffield again soon.

Monday was another Off the Shelf day. The rain was heavier and the skies. At the start of the evening, I braved the wet to meet novelist Gavin Extence, author of ‘The Universe Versus Alex Woods’, a quirky yet moving book about an unlikely friendship between Alex, an isolated teenage boy and Mr Peterson, a lonely old man. Gavin was really interesting to chat to – and we had a really interesting discussion with him about the themes in his novel and his writing career so far. That’s a great story in itself – after gaining a degree in English Literature (from the University of Sheffield, just like me!), and then a PHD, he was struggling to get a job (this sounds familiar too!) Gavin’s wife suggested that he put all of his energy into writing (and presumably the household chores too!) The hard work and dedication paid off, as ‘The Universe Versus Alex Woods’ is now a best-selling novel, and certainly one of the best books I’ve read this year, funny and thought-provoking.

I had the pleasure of Gavin’s company for a bit longer as I was giving him a lift to Bank Street Arts for “Sheffield’s Got Fiction Talent”, a “fiction slam” event, where local writers competed against each other, each having a minute to pitch their novel in the first round. Gavin Extence was a judge, and I was a competitor. I was disappointed not to make it past the first round, where audience members voted for their six favourite pitchers, but the place was packed, with over twenty writers competing for six places in the second round. I put a brave face on it. The night was a great success – partly because two people from the novelists group that I run came joint second, and some very talented writers were showcased – and were critiqued by the fearsome panel (not so fearsome, it was all great constructive criticism)!

I went to bed feeling alright – pleased that I’d met some interesting writers, and only mildly disappointed. However, my mental vultures were already circling. Sometimes I can feel devastated even when I’ve got things to be happy about. it doesn’t happen often, but when the wrong circumstances combine, I feel really depressed. Minor setbacks, combined with fluctuating hormones, the way people treat me, for example, a small, easily mended tiff with the other half, leave me tearful and hopeless. A turning point came a few years ago, when I consulted a doctor and she suggested a prescription of antidepressants. I realised that this wasn’t the way to help myself. I’ve been determined to know myself; to get to the root of my problems and do something about it. I’ve been on a mission to get rid of those mental vultures, otherwise known as the “top dog” or the “shitty committee”, who tell me that I’m worthless and talented, and that everyone who sees me can look right through me and see that I’m hideous, stupid, insane and deluded. It’s pure craziness to think like this.

But every time I feel like this, the positive voices get stronger. I realise I’m no longer alone in thinking negatively about myself. My wonderful “free range” colleague Lotte Lane has written (and filmed herself) about exactly what I’m talking about. This struck such a chord with me that it brought tears to my eyes – not tears of self-pity this time, but tears of recognition and hope. http://www.lottelane.com/meet-shitty-committee/

Some people would shy away from mentioning the downs in life as well as the ups. But I want to be honest. By talking about things like this, it means that we’re no longer suffering alone. I’ve recognised my feelings and now I’m on my way to bouncing back, with new ideas and a refreshed perspective. We have to work hard to maintain and create the positive, creative things in our life, but they’re worth fighting for.

The power of a solo walk – the Porter Valley

In need of fresh air and thinking time…

I’ve been feeling a little out of sorts. I think it’s the change in the seasons, and my natural anxiety in the process of  changing careers and becoming self employed. Some things have been going brilliantly well – my writing workshop for Off the Shelf has filled up, due to my own hard work, and I’m in the middle of another freelance editing project. But some things start well and then take more time than expected to get off the ground. I always think I can do more than I can in one day – and the task of writing my second novel has been languishing behind more exciting tasks such as cleaning the bathroom!

I’m making lots of links with people to build my business, developing new ideas, and learning new skills all the time. But I know I could be doing more, working harder or smarter. There are lots of “shoulds” in life, aren’t there? Sometimes these days, I surprise myself with my own confidence; sometimes I’m cursing myself for the smallest mistake. I’m aiming to be on the look out for every opportunity: concentrating on keeping my life afloat and moving forwards in the right direction.

So on Sunday, I decided to go for a walk. My other half didn’t want to come, but it was such a lovely warm day, I had to make the most of it. And if it’s a choice between doing something I really want to do on my own, or not doing it at all, I’ll go for the solo option. And a solo walk is always an adventure. When I start walking from the house and find myself in the Bolehills and the Rivelin Valley, there are so many paths to take that I just choose them on a whim, not knowing where I’m going to end up, but knowing where I am from the contours of the land, the ramshackle allotments, the incongruous tower blocks of Stannington, and the swift river flowing through the bottom of the valley. These walks can be quite magical and unpredictable.

The Queen Victoria Jubilee Monument - a good spot for reading

The Queen Victoria Jubilee Monument – a good spot for reading

This Sunday, I decided on one of the other famous valley walks in Sheffield, the Porter Valley. This walk starts in Endcliffe Park, a popular park in Hunters Bar (immortalised by the Arctic Monkeys on their first album) with a large playing field, duck ponds and a cafe abounding with “yummy mummies” of this upmarket area of Sheffield. it’s also a favourite student area, and I parked on Ranby Road, a terraced street running down to the park, where I lived in my second year at university, catching up with my reading list by Queen Victoria’s jubilee memorial.

A heron! On the busiest pond in Sheffield.

A heron! On the busiest pond in Sheffield.

The park was busy with footballers, picnickers, kids and cute dogs. As I walked past the first pond, I had my first surprise. The pond is usually a bit boring, rather silted up, with the world’s fattest mallards bobbing around on the surface, staring disdainfully at the sliced white bread being thrown at them. They prefer ciabatta, daarling. But there in the trees, in full view of everyone, was a heron. A mother and daughter pointed it out, and soon, crowds had gathered to point and take photographs. Herons are quite common, really, but there’s still something special about them, scruffily elegant and mysterious.

I moved on, enjoying the vivid autumn colours and entertained by the antics of dogs who seemed determined to jump into the stream. Taking a few quieter paths, I saw a charming little grey wagtail, catching flies and bobbing around.

Steps made out of grindstones at Shepherd Wheel

Steps made out of grindstones at Shepherd Wheel

The Shepherd Wheel Mill was working today. Each pond on the Porter Valley used to be a millpond – powering water-powered grinding wheels for sharpening cutlery and tools. Shepherd Wheel is the only grinding mill- on any of Sheffield’s rivers, in existence, and it’s been restored over the last few years, with a working water wheel and the grinder’s wheels inside. The place bores my other half rigid, but I like it. it’s an important part of Sheffield’s history, and I find the noise of the wheels turning, and the water in the wheel, quite relaxing. It’s picturesque, dating back to the 1500s. In its heyday, it would have been a noisy, dangerous, dusty place to work – the whole valley would have been very industrial.  In the restored millpond, a lady was encouraging her Labrador to swim to fetch a ball – he was having a wonderful time.

A shaft of sunlight in the woods

A shaft of sunlight in the woods

Soon after the mill, a road crosses the path, and on the other side, it’s more wooded. There were still a fair amount of people taking a Sunday stroll or bike ride, but woodland and birdsong were taking over. There are some wonderful old, gnarled trees, and it really started to smell like autumn; of damp earth and fungi. I took atmospheric photographs of sunlight through the dappled leaf canopy.

Never mind the bullocks!

Never mind the bullocks!

Eventually, I ended up at Forge Dam, with its round pond, now rather silted up, and legendary cafe, recently refurbished. I had an excellent chip butty for lunch and sat outside in the Sunshine, amused by the rather posh clientèle, and large dogs causing chaos. I was going to end my walk here, but I decided that I was up for an adventure. I fancied a walk to the llama and alpaca farm – yes, you heard correctly, in Ringinglow, After Forge Dam, the path runs through the Mayfield Valley. This is definitely the countryside, there are fields on either side of the path, picturesque farms, and the high-rise buildings of the city look very distant. I passed a field of curious bullocks.

Just around the corner, the path to the village of Ringinglow climbs steeply uphill through a field. Once I walked up here and the field was full of cows with large pointed horns, but I was lucky this time – there was just a group of children launching themselves down the hill, loving the feeling of being out of control. It was a hard slog up the hill, but the view was worth it, miles of green valley, with the landmarks of Sheffield clear but tiny on the horizon. At the top, I exchanged out of breath pleasantries with a family visiting the Alpaca farm. As I walked into the village, I could see the long-necked animals in their fields, but I didn’t feel like paying to walk around the fields on the other side of the fence – after all, I’d already seen them!

Porter Clough

Porter Clough

Instead, I walked on until I reached Porter Clough, the very top of the Porter Valley walk, on the edge of the Peak District, where the stream is little more than a trickle from the moors. The steep-sided valley is covered in ancient woodland. I managed to avoid the rain of acorns falling in the woods. Although it was still t-shirt weather, the leaves were steadily twirling down.  I took the higher paths on the way back, to vary the route, and picked up my pace, and it wasn’t long before I was on Ranby Road again.

A solo walk is a great way to clear your mind and allow your thoughts to settle. I also find it good for creativity. Walking alone always makes me want to write poetry – and occasionally, I do. That’s why a familiar route on a reliable path is good, as no map-reading is required and you’re not going to get stuck in boggy bits when you’re not concentrating! One of my other favourite solo walks in Sheffield is around Damflask reservoir, near Bradfield village. It can be managed in just over an hour and it’s good if you just want to get away from it all for a while!

Safety first though! If you are going walking on your own, you might want to stick to tried-and-tested routes at first, where there will be other walkers. If you’re using a map to plan your route, make sure it’s manageable in the time you have. Wear sensible footwear! Bring a waterproof jacket, water, an OS map if you need it, a snack, or enough money to buy one. Bring your mobile phone, although a reception isn’t always guaranteed in mountainous regions! And always tell someone where you’re going and roughly when you expect to come home (not that I do all of these things all the time!) When you do get home, you’ll definitely be feeling better than when you set off!

Oh Deer: Autumn Reality Check

On the weekend of the Autumn Equinox, we headed to the hills. There were five of us. We’d all met through Oxfam stewarding: Louise, Susie, Fraser, Clare and myself, although the friendships have blossomed and evolved over years. Our friendships have taken us through study, unemployment, creativity, the daily grind of the 9-5, travel adventures, many festivals and being generally separated by geography. But we always come back together, with the ability to turn any experience into a crazy adventure. This autumnal meet-up was in the small window of opportunity between Clare returning from back-packing in China and a long trip to Nicaragua as a volunteer leader! She was also made redundant in April, and her world knows no limits!

Louise and I drove to Edale, a remote village in the Peak District under the shadow of the mountainous moorland plateau of Kinder Scout. The village is encircled by forbidding hills, but it’s less than an hour’s drive from Sheffield, and half way to Manchester on the train. This makes it a popular destination for hikers.

We knew the cottage we’d hired, Lea House, was near the Nag’s Head, the pub in the heart of the village and the official start of the Pennine way, but when Susie appeared to guide us to our weekend home, we were astounded that it was a 17th century cottage right next to the pub. It was perfect (well, for anyone under 5ft 6): massive oak beams, an open fireplace in the living room, a cosy kitchen and the sort of chintzy furniture that makes you feel cosy. The walls are about two feet thick and the roof tiles are thick stone slates – it needs to be a solidly built house with the wild weather of the Peaks. The house is actually a Grade II listed building. We were amazed that we’d managed to hire it at the last minute. The signpost for the start of the Pennine Way is right outside the front door.

We unpacked, and were ready to heat up the veggie chilli I’d prepared the night before, and bake the garlic bread in the oven, that weirdly, is identical to my own oven at home (which is so ancient that it deserves to be Grade II listed.) We started making a fire, waited for the others to arrive. Without a mobile phone signal, staying in Edale propels you back to earlier methods of communication, like payphones and guess-work! Fraser arrived with no problems, and eventually we ate the chilli, still waiting for Clare. We’d left a message on the gatepost, illuminated by a torch (there are no streetlights in the village), and left voicemails on her mobile from the phone in the Nag’s Head. As Clare is now an international globe-trotter, we were sure she was safe, but we grew increasingly worried.

Just after 11pm, I set off on my own, armed only with a small torch and the glow from having consumed several glasses of wine. Despite the darkness and remoteness of Edale, it always seems like a safe place. The hills feel protective, and the village feels friendly, welcoming visitors all through the year. As I approached The Rambler Inn, I heard a train rumbling into the station from the Sheffield direction. That must be Clare’s train. A few people walked towards me, having disembarked. Clare wasn’t amongst them. The platform was deserted. I checked the timetable. That was the last train. No Clare. What had happened? The last thing we knew, she was heading to Edale. I walked back to the cottage and broke the news to the others. We were concerned. Twenty minutes later, there was a knock on the door. She’d made it! Despite being a Derbyshire native, she’d started walking the opposite way from the train station, and had eventually asked The Rambler Inn for directions. Relieved, we caught up with gossip, and headed to bed.

Saturday morning started foggy and drizzly. Not the best day for climbing mountains. So we headed to the Chestnut Centre: a wildlife conservation park near Chapel-en-le-Frith, famous for its otters and owls. Before we reached the main animal enclosures, we walked through the deer park and had we started nibbling on our sandwiches and crisps. A herd of fallow deer followed us, with two particularly cheeky individuals nosing our bags to sniff out food, One beautiful deer ate the worksheet we’d just picked up from the visitors’ centre!

It always seems a bit strange to see owls in daytime, and they are rarely very active, although they look beautiful. However, we were entranced by the White Faced Southern Scop Owls, who were bobbing around on their perch as if they were listening to drum ‘n’ bass on their headphones! I’ve visited the Chestnut Centre a few times before, so I knew what to expect, but the Giant South American otters captivated my friends. They were on form – swimming around, play fighting and noisily eating. They are very rare in the wild and are part of an international breeding programme. The lively, sociable Asian Short Claw Otters were also one of the highlights.

We then descended perilous Winnats Pass into Castleton for a tour around the Peak Cavern, now officially known by its old name of the Devil’s Arse – so called because of the noise made by an underground river running through the cavern in full flow. We had an entertaining young tour guide – I’ve been to the cavern about five times, but it always impresses me and fires my imagination, particularly the story of the grimy rope-makers who used to work there acting as tour-guides for Romantic-era upper class adventurers, making the tourists lie in coffin-sized boats to explore the cavern by candlelight. Thankfully, it’s a lot more comfortable to explore the cavern now!

We spent a pleasant evening, with a meal around the kitchen table, chat and a couple of pints in the Nag’s Head, before coming back to the cottage for a wood fire and attempting to tackle a jigsaw commemorating Prince Charles and Lady Diana’s engagement from 1981. We’re not Royalists! We bought the jigsaw from Oxfam for Louise’s birthday, as she has a bizarre fascination with Princess Diana. Perhaps, after spending a lot of our time together as friends raving and going to noisy gigs, we were doing the jigsaw ironically. However, it’s very pleasant to chat while gently exercising our brains trying to fit pieces together.

Sunday was a beautiful, crystal-clear day. We were up for the challenge of climbing Kinder Scout. We made our sandwiches, and set off via Grindsbrook, the valley path which started directly behind Lea House. The climb uphill was a challenge as I was coming down with a cold, but the view from the top and the fresh air was worth it and I soon felt clear-headed and full of energy. I’ve climbed Kinder Scout several times before, but never in such great weather, so I’ve never really appreciated the amazing views or beautifully bizarre millstone grit rock formations at the top, caused by thousands of years of erosion by wind and water. We had great fun clambering around and photographing them. We ate our lunch on a flat stone in the middle of a waterfall, sun-bathing. Walking with friends is always a great chance to talk – and five is a great number. As the day went on, we put the world to rights and talked about our hopes and dreams as we followed our way around the edge of the plateau. Eventually, we made our way downhill, via the steep Jacob’s Ladder Path, before rewarding ourselves with dinner in the Ramber Inn and a few pints. We spent several more hours on the jigsaw, before giving up – the piles of plain blue and black pieces were just too boring to complete!

Even before I returned home on Monday, I knew that the rest of the Autumn would have to be a time of buckling down – getting on with building my writing business and gaining more teaching experience. Fresh opportunities are just about to start – I’ve managed to get tutor jobs with Derbyshire County Council and Sheffield College and I’m just waiting for my references and checks to come through. Over the last week, I’ve spent lots of time promoting my Off the Shelf writing workshop, which is paying off with lots of bookings and I’ve started my reminiscence work with dementia patients at Newholme Hospital in Bakewell again. Yesterday I spent a rainy day pond-dipping and wildlife watching at an RSPB reserve with children from the local primary school. And last Friday, I started a teacher training course to refine my skills working with adults. I’m doing the course through Derbyshire County Council and the venue is in New Mills, so on my journey, I found myself revisiting some of the weekend’s scenes again – Castleton, Winnat’s Pass and Hope.

The process of change can sometimes be frustrating, but looking back on my achievements over the last month, I realise that I’ve transformed from a trapped soul, looking out onto a concrete car park, into a creative, confident person, with beauty and friendship all around me, especially if I look for it. As John Shuttleworth, bard of Sheffield and the Peak District says in his song ‘She Lives in Hope’: “…and when she finds herself on Lose Hill, she only needs to turn to Win Hill to recover from Defeat.”

Further reading:

The National Trust reccomended our exact Kinder Scout walk – but we didn’t know it at the time!

Kinder Scout is also a landscape that working class ramblers fought to access. Read about the 1932 Mass Trespass of Kinder Scout here.

Autumn Leaves Still Make Me Believe

Deciding to volunteer at Festival Number 6 was a step into the unknown. Last year, I listened to the coverage of the festival on BBC 6 Music, and I was intrigued. I’d seen one episode of The Prisoner, so I knew that was the reason for the festival’s unusual name; I liked the eclectic line-up, and I’d never visited Portmeirion, the eccentric village, built by Sir Clough Williams-Ellis between 1925 and 1976 in the style of an Italian hilltop town.

One of the other major attractions was also the Manic Street Preachers, due to headline on the eve of the release of their new album “Rewind the Film”. I’ve loved the Manics for the past three years. I was always drawn to their earlier songs, glamour and the drama of their guitarist/lyricist Richey Edwards, missing, presumed dead since February 1995. I saw the band twice as a teenager. However, I only started getting into them when I was researching my novel-in-progress, Distortion. My teenage protagonist is obsessed with the Manics, and it rubbed off on me! It would be very special to see them in their home country.

I packed light(ish), as due to the steep, remote site, there’s no parking, so everyone has to park at the nearby Porthmadog football club. When I set the satnav postcode, I had to change the country to “Wales”. This was going to be an adventure: going on my own to a different country. I was in Wales within two hours, driving through the dramatic hills of Snowdonia. As soon as I was over the border, the road signs became bilingual: “ARAF” for “slow”, and “UN FFORDD” for “one way”. I hadn’t been to Wales for years and enjoyed the feeling of everything being slightly different. I got a bit lost trying to find the “park and ride”, because I was only the forth car to arrive on Wednesday morning. I caught the shuttle bus with most of my stuff to set up my tent in the staff camp site, just behind the main arena, which made the park and ride worthwhile.  I then returned to the football club to get my wristband. There were a few delays, but while I was making, I made friends with some other volunteers: Callum, Sharon and Rod in particular. By the time we were on the coach again, the rain was really coming down, blurring the dramatic skyline.

I helped the others to put their tents up, and we braved the rain to check our shifts in the production office. It was a shame my first view of Portmeirion was a rather wet one, but the advantage of having a festival partly set in a village is the advantage of buildings. We had a warming coffee in the tea rooms before getting a good view of the estuary and sheltering in a beautiful grotto decorated with shells. Later, we returned to the hotel and had a couple of drinks on wonderfully comfortable sofas in front of a fire. It had stopped raining and Portmeirion looked stunning under floodlights – it didn’t feel like we were in Wales at all, until we returned to our damp tents. Thursday morning dawned bright and sunny. The views of the estuary and the mountains really opened up. Sharon and I had a wander around Portmeirion and lunch in the staff canteen, which is also the main restaurant for tourists in the village. Bizarrely, I bumped into a lady I know from Sheffield, who was on a coach trip around Wales. We caught the shuttle bus back to the Park and Ride for our shift.

Unfortunately, it started raining again, the clouds blocking out all the hills. I was on wrist-banding duty as the first ticket-holders came through the gates, but after a few hours of dryness inside a marquee, I spent the rest of my shift directing cars and selling parking tickets in the car park. An entertaining security guard livened things up. According to the BBC Wales website, 61.2% of the population speak Welsh as a first language and I tried to pick up a few phrases: “Bore Da” for “good morning” and “Nos Da” for “goodnight”.

We finished our shifts at 11pm on Thursday, just after it finally stopped raining. We got straight onto the shuttle bus to take us back to site. I was still feeling fairly lively, so I had a couple of ciders and chatted to the decor crew, who had been working hard in the rain to make everything look beautiful.

Friday looked like it was going to be a great day, but again, and I was given the task of selling parking tickets again, and directing cars to where the stewards were parking them. It was sunny for a while, but then a steady rain began to fall, and didn’t stop until just before the end of the shift. It was my last shift though, so I didn’t mind too much, and kept relatively dry with my waterproofs and an umbrella. It was good to be one of the first people to greet the arriving ticket-holders, and it was amazing to see the car park field absolutely full up by the end of my shift.

By the time I arrived back in Portmeirion, it was a lovely autumnal evening. I met up with Sharon and Rob, and it was time to relax and enjoy the festival! We headed to the Estuary Stage, down by the waterfront and the hotel. it was great to just sit back, near the swimming pool and listen to the music while admiring the baroque buildings of the village and the beauty of the mountains in the background. The band was Clinic, a post-punk band wearing surgical masks. Some of their songs had a classic gothic sound, with drum-machines, strong basslines and intricate guitar lines. It was an aural assault but very enjoyable. As a total contrast, we walked uphill to the Piazza to watch the Brythoniaid Welsh Male Voice Choir. Hundreds of people were packed into the square to listen to this traditional choir – mostly elderly men in tuxedos – performing ‘Good Times’ by Chic, ‘A design for Life’ by the Manic Street Preachers, which was absolutely spell-binding, and ‘Uprising’ by Muse – which was slightly marred by the use of a backing track, but it was a fantastic experience.

Unbelievably, I hadn’t been inside the main arena yet, but as we walked towards the main stage (wisely inside a marquee!), there was time to take in the beautiful gateway, lighting and decorations in the arena. The scale of the festival is also astonishingly intimate, with everything within an easy walking distance. I hadn’t previously seen James Blake live, but when I was in the final weeks of my job and the horrendous daily commute to Derby, his song ‘Retrograde‘ was regularly played on 6 Music. Its sensitive, soul-searching lyrics, with an unsettling undercurrent of searing electronic noise really helped me through those tough times at work, when I was wondering if leaving work and following my own path was the right thing to do. James Blake sometimes seemed like a rather introspective choice for a headliner, but Festival Number 6 isn’t about obvious choices. There were moments of banging bass which really brought the tent alive, and he proved that he’s got plenty of quality songs. James Blake actually performed ‘Retrograde twice, as his “autoharp” wasn’t working properly, providing me with two magic moments. After that, all the standing around in the rain caught up with me, so I had a quiet can and a chat back at the camp site, before heading off to bed.

Saturday dawned beautiful, and thankfully, stayed that way! I wandered around with Sharon, and we hung out at the Tim Peaks diner – a coffee shop in a small tower, run by Tim Burgess of the Charlatans. It was rammed inside the building, but it was great to sit on the steps and admire the view. We decided to explore the sea-front and the woods, making the most of the weather, so we took in the atmosphere on the estuary-side path, where children were being taught pirate skills by professional pirates, and festival-goers were relaxing, taking photographs and admiring the view. People were serenely paddle-boarding below us. We walked down to the beach but the estuary tide was turning. The path through the woods was steep in places, with surprises around every corner: origami-wishes that we made and attached to a tree, under the supervision of a fairy; a daytime woodland rave; an Ibiza style cafe filled with dry ice; and a children’s area with a very cheesy disco! There were lots of activities for children, including an area where they could make their own dens. It was a brilliant, relaxed way to spend an afternoon at a festival, in an atmosphere that was truly magical. The strangest thing we found was an artist making screen-prints of the topography of the forest floor. His name is Maurice Carlin, and he’s done some pretty interesting stuff!

Following our wander, we settled at the Estuary Stage again, having treated ourselves to some posh drinks from the Fevertree bar – I had a Gin and Tonic. We watched Stealing Sheep, who paraded through the audience with a brass band before they came on stage. The music was folky psychedelia which washed over us gently as we soaked up the sunshine and the gorgeous view. The need for food was calling us into the main arena, and I had a delicious curry from Ghandi’s Flip Flop. We relaxed in the sunshine outside the Soup Library – a stall combining a pop-up library and home-made soup, flicking through the old books and chatting to fellow festival-goers. The audience at Festival Number 6 is a really nice mix – fairly mature and family friendly, open-minded, and a fair amount of hardcore indie devotees. There were lots of local people, who’d been able to purchase tickets at a reduced rate, so the lyrical Welsh language was often heard around the site. All the signs at the festival were bilingual.

We watched trip-hop legend Tricky at the main stage, who seems to have gone in a heavy metal direction with distorted guitars. I particularly enjoyed a cover of ‘Ace of Spades’ by Motorhead! We then returned to the village piazza to watch punk poet John Cooper Clarke. The piazza was packed with people of all ages, absolutely entranced with John’s mix of stand-up, rambling commentary and the set-pieces of his poetry. It was the perfect moment, as the sun was going down, making the pastel-coloured buildings glow.

Returning to the Estuary Stage again, we watched Caitlin Rose, a hotly-tipped country singer-songwriter, often played on Marc Riley’s show on BBC 6 Music. She’s a brilliant performer and her songs are beautifully crafted. I particularly enjoyed ‘For the Rabbits‘. Her music is gentle, but with a dark edge. When her set had finished, we could already hear My Bloody Valentine’s headline set echoing over the estuary. Legendary innovators of shoe-gaze, their sonic attack must have been too much for many people at close-range and the main stage marquee wasn’t full – but the hardcore audience were spell-bound by the waves of sound. I’d been warned about the infamous ending to their gigs – a wash of feedback and noise. I loved it – and so did the My Bloody Valentine devotee I was dancing with, having the time of his life!

Sharon sensibly retired to bed after a nightcap of Kraken Rum, but I stayed out and partied to some great tunes in the Kraken bar, which consisted of the same three tipis as one of the more laid-back stages at Shambala festival! I made some great friends for the night, determined to boogie to the very last song.

I awoke on Sunday morning to gales. It wasn’t raining too much yet but the weather had definitely taken a turn for the worse. I helped Sharon to pack as she wasn’t up for spending another night in a very draughty tent. By the time we walked to the village, the rain was torrential. My plan was to get inside somewhere as soon as possible. I managed to squeeze into the Tim Peaks diner for Bingo Disco, which was great fun, although there wasn’t much room to dance! The main arena was closed because people were checking the safety of the structures, but the winds seemed to be easing off slightly. After a veggie burger from the always reliable Goodness Gracious, I found myself back in the Tim Peaks diner, listening to a reading from Joe Dunthorne, author of the novel Submarine, which was made into a brilliant film by Richard Ayode, a beautifully quirky coming-of-age story. It was a real treat, and a good lesson in putting on a good performance as a novelist. The highlight was a “choose your own adventure” story about a couple having a picnic in a park, with the audience voting on what happens next, leading to wild sex on a revolving office chair!

The next must-see thing for me was Caitlin Moran in conversation with John Niven. I’ve always liked Caitlin Moran, ever since she was the bouncy, teenage presenter of music show Naked City on Channel 4 in the early 90s. She’s only a couple of years older than me. I really enjoyed her autobiographical book on feminism, ‘How to be a Woman’. Despite an impoverished childhood, she won a writing competition at the age of thirteen, kept writing and ended up with a published novel and was working as a reported for Melody Maker by the age of sixteen. Her interview was very entertaining, full of embarrassing stories of Mooncup disasters, turning Gwenneth Paltrow’s house into a blood-bath. I’d love to find out what gave her the faith to become a writer throughout her childhood. Did being home-educated and immersed in books strengthen her resolve? Was it success in a competition at a young age that boosted her confidence in her writing? It’s clear from listening to her speaking and reading her books that she wasn’t confident in everything. She was often desperately unhappy and insecure about her weight. I’m full of admiration for her – but if I have to be honest, a little jealous too. And that’s totally unreasonable of me. I’m learning to have confidence in my own writing and teaching abilities and I’m making my own life, my own career, based around writing; on my own terms. And strong women like Caitlin are fighting my corner.

I stayed around in the bar to listen to Guy Garvey in conversation with Stuart Maconie. I’m not the biggest Elbow fan, but I was fascinated by the discussion about his lyrics and how they develop, sometimes over a period of months. The interview inspired me to listen to Elbow more closely and examine the poetic craft that goes into the songs.

It was time to stake out the main stage in preparation for the Manics. Although I was on my own, there was plenty to keep me entertained. I am Kloot – a Manchester band closely related to Elbow, played a stunning set. I’ve been into I am Kloot since around 2000, when their skilful, sensitive songwriting won me over. They now have a more dense, mature sound, rocking out more, but it was a beautiful way to start the evening. The next act was Johnny Marr. I’d never seen him live before and it was an absolute treat. His own songs sounded great, from his solo album The Messenger, proving that he has a good singing voice as well as unbelievably amazing guitar skills. The highlights of the set have to be the Smiths songs he performed, owning them just as much as Morrisey ever could. Johnny Marr turned classic songs such as ‘There is a light that never goes out’ into sing-alongs, the crowd delirious with happiness.

The marquee was packed for Chic. The intimacy of the venue really came into its own – there was no need for a big screen. Nile Rodgers was standing a few metres away from me and the band looked unbelievably glamorous in spangly white outfits. Nile Rodgers accurately pointed out that he’s responsible for some of the most important moments in the history of pop music, such as ‘Let’s Dance’ by David Bowie and ‘Like a Virgin’ by Madonna. They played a hit-filled set of Chic classics such as ‘Le Freak’ and ‘Good Times’, and a medley of Nile Rodgers songs such as ‘I’m coming out’ by Diana Ross. They ended the set by dancing to the hit of the summer, ‘Get Lucky’ by Daft Punk, which features Nile Rodgers distinctive guitar playing. Nile Rodgers is really inspiring, overcoming cancer by the power of positive thinking and pure determination: http://www.nilerodgers.com/blogs.

I eagerly waited for the Manics to take to the stage, and they didn’t disappoint, starting the set with an explosive ‘Motorcycle Emptiness’. They played a hit-filled set, with lots of songs from ‘This is my Truth, tell me Yours’. The cover of that album was actually shot on the beach at Port Meirion, as the Manics explained – and they’d enjoyed fish and chips afterwards! Songs from the new album ‘Rewind the Film’ sounded great – more acoustic and reflective, and Richard Hawley made a brief appearance for the title track, where he sings most of the vocals. James Dean Bradfield himself was in fine voice, obviously pleased to be playing on “home ground”. Nicky Wire looked great in his Star Wars jacket, and he jumped around the stage with enthusiasm, scissor-kicking with his impossibly long skinny legs! It was the first time I’d seen them from such close quarters and it was particularly great to see Sean Moore in action- he puts so much power and precision into his drumming. The audience had a wonderful time, hanging off every word and lyric. Towards the end of the set, Nicky introduced ‘Revol’ from The Holy Bible as a tribute to Richey. It was so heart-felt and genuine. In the wake of the Manics massive success with ‘Everything Must Go’ and ‘This is My Truth, Tell me Yours’, it’s easy to forget the ongoing importance of Richey to the band. The stage-left position is always left empty in tribute to him. The set finished with ‘A design for Life’. I felt like I’d been part of something really special. http://www.manicstreetpreachers.com/

But the night wasn’t over yet! I danced the night away in the Kraken bar again, courtesy of a Craig Charles’ funk and soul DJ set. I didn’t stop dancing for two hours and even got to shake Craig Charles’ hand at the end. Eventually, I stumbled off to bed, proud that I’d done the last festival of the season proud!

On Monday, I packed away quickly and got a shuttle bus back to the car without any delays. I’d drunk all my cider, so I had no problem carrying all my stuff in one go! I made a detour to visit the Centre for Alternative Technology, nestled amongst the mountains of Snowdonia. CAT was one of the first pioneers of wind and solar power. When it was established in the 1970s, the community was seen as a bunch of cranks and weirdos. Forty years later, the technology they helped to develop is now mainstream and widely accepted. If governments and society in general listened more to organisations like CAT, we’d solve the problems caused by climate change. But sadly, CAT have still got a lot to do! I also found out that “Popty Ping” is Welsh for “microwave”.

After my adventure, it was good to get home to a rainy, dark Sheffield and my other half, who’d been waiting patiently for me (and the chip supper I brought home!) I’m determined to crystallise my summer experiences into developing my own writing career and to inspire me to live live my way.

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